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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 17 October 2010 for the Feast of the Dedication of Westminster Abbey

17 October 2010 at 11:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Those of us, the clergy, the choir and the many others who live and work here gain great strength from the large diverse congregations that join us for the daily worship of almighty God. We who sustain the spiritual and practical life of the Abbey and those who worship here regularly are joined by hundreds of people from all parts of the world and of all ages. Together each day we make afresh the church here. Whether we have been worshipping here regularly for decades or have come here for the first time this morning, we are all a small portion of the countless thousands of people who have worshipped God here through at least 1050 years of this church’s history, since AD 960. For the first 600 years they were mostly monks and faithful pilgrims or kings and queens and their courtiers, some of the leading men and women of this country. For the past 450 years, the number has grown and diversified, until these days of international air travel, when I dare say the congregation this morning includes people from every continent in the world. We truly represent the church universal.

Our readings today remind us that what really matters about the church is not the buildings but God’s holy people, each of us the temple of the Holy Spirit. St Paul assures us that we “are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints”. In Christ “the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple”. This great building then, called a church, is a metaphor, an image of the real Church of God, his people. The building is not in itself negligible but a powerful and attractive image. The acts of worship here day by day lift our hearts and minds and souls to God and enable us to be more fully what he has called us to be.

Today we celebrate the anniversary of this church’s consecration and dedication to the worship of God on 13th October 1269. There was a church here long before that. The Saxon monastic church built in 960 by St Dunstan during the reign of King Edgar may not have been the first. In any case it would have been modest in scale and served by a small number of monks following the Rule of St Benedict. Its successor church, consecrated on 28th December 1065 and built by King Edward, known as the Confessor, was on a far grander scale, in the Norman style, next to the king’s Palace, the forerunner of the Houses of Parliament.

This church, although it was consecrated in 1269, was by no means at that time complete. Nor is it now. For a hundred years or so, the east end of this 13th century church, the quire, the transepts, the sacrarium, the shrine of St Edward the Confessor behind the high altar and the Lady Chapel behind that, abutted the Romanesque nave of Edward the Confessor’s church. There must have been an ugly curtain wall between the soaring Gothic of the quire and the much lower Romanesque nave. Over the next hundred and fifty years or so, by a gradual process, as money was available and energies were renewed, slowly and tortuously, the nave was built to complete the great east to west line of the church. When that was done, the west front of the church remained obviously incomplete with one stumpy tower slightly higher than the other, neither rising much above the line of the nave roof. The great west towers, now so powerful an image, were not added until the middle of the 18th century, five hundred years after the church’s consecration. And still the building is incomplete. The central tower planned for over the crossing between the transepts and quire was begun in the 18th century and never finished. Work stopped in 1727 and has not been resumed. Perhaps it will not be resumed for some time. In a sense, this building will never be complete, since every generation must care for it and refresh it, as our predecessors have done over the past sixty years.

The building’s incompleteness is itself a metaphor, an image for us to ponder. We can never be complacent, never satisfied. We can never sit back and contemplate with confidence our achievements. That is true of this building. It is true of the church of which we are members, far from incomplete, still a long way short of perfection. It is true of ourselves; we have a long way to go. We are called to strive, to yearn, to long for our fulfilment, to struggle and work towards the goal. As St Paul said to the Christians in Philippi, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection… I press on to make [the goal] my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” [Philippians 3: 10-16]

Our completeness as Christians, our fulfilment, is not in this life. Here all we can have is a shadow of what will be hereafter, a glimpse of God’s love, a passing flash of understanding, a distant sight of his beauty. Here we can play our part fleetingly, weakly, in singing the praises of almighty God, in which we shall one day play our full part. Here in the bread and wine of the Eucharist we can have but a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in which by God’s grace we shall partake fully in due time.

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